One of the Australian government's advisory bodies, the Productivity Commission, has warned that Australia's digital conversion plan faces "serious risk of failure".

The warning is a slap in the face for both the government that formulated the plan and the influential existing free-to-air television networks which it clearly favours.

The commission argues that the introduction of digital broadcasting should result in new and better services, but that the current policy framework is "inward-looking, anti-competitive and restrictive". The Australian government has so far opted to use additional digital frequencies for high definition television (HDTV) rather than develop a greater number of services and channels.

The commission recommends dropping the HDTV strategy and freeing up foreign ownership and cross-media restrictions to encourage new and foreign players to invest in Australia's nascent digital broadcasting industry. It criticises the current plan to give existing broadcasters exclusive use of digital technology until 2006 because a "diversity of information sources" is best achieved by a "diversity in ownership of media."

The final report, which has just been tabled in the Australian parliament, is not as harsh on Australian content rules as last October's first draft, and recommends they stay in place until a public inquiry can be conducted before 2004. However, it has called for the immediate abolition of the 80% Australian content quota on commercials, and the drama expenditure quota on pay-TV.

The commission is an independent government body charged with handling matters relating to industry and productivity, but its findings can be ignored by government. It received 300 submissions before coming to its conclusions.